Famous Film Historian In South Dakota

Apr 2, 2013

Jeanine Basinger's new book examines how movies portray married couples.
Credit Kealey Bultena / SDPB

Famous film historian Jeanine Basinger is spending time in South Dakota, but she’s doing interviews with people around the globe. Basinger’s new book examines marriage in the movies. Even though she’s just released her tenth book, the author and film expert has her retirement sights set on the Great Plains.

With black and white images of people dressed to the nines and classic scene transitions, the trailer for The Marrying Kind fits the old-movie cliche. Film historian Jeanine Basinger recommends the 1952 flick.

"It’s a story of an average couple. It’s a comedy, really, and yet it contains a terrible tragedy," Basinger says. "It starts out in the divorce court. He says, ‘Our marriage isn’t sick. It’s dead.’"

Basinger authors the book I Do and I Don’t: A History of Marriage in the Movies. She sifted through decades of film from the silent era to movies made today all focused on married life.

"Beware the idea of being a marriage guru is my warning for all film historians, because the movies don’t exactly present positive pictures of marriages. They have to break them up in some way to make them interesting," Basinger says.

Basinger says her examination of marriage on film shows a theme of incredible dysfunction, and that’s not an accurate representation of many couples. She says film shows an evolution of idea of marriage; it’s changed dramatically since motion pictures started.

"You reach a point in time where marriage is no longer the same social pressure that it once was. I mean, at one time, marriage was an absolute goal, and if you didn’t get married you were labeled spinster, bachelor, that was it," Baysinger says. "Now, of course, marriage is not necessary. That is, it is not socially necessary. You can live together, have children together, be unmarried.  The interest in it shifted."

Recent films prove that. Basinger says few marriage movies came out during the 1980s and ’90s because it didn’t seem relevant. Basinger says cinema is seeing a return to marriage presented as a desirable lifestyle, especially during the last decade.

Basinger is Corwin-Fuller professor of film studies at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. She’s the curator and founder of the Wesleyan cinema archives there. And she’s a South Dakotan.

Author Jeanine Basinger talks to reporters around the world from the SDPB studio at the University of Sioux Falls.
Credit Kealey Bultena / SDPB

"My family moved here when I was not quite five years old, and I went to public school here in Brookings all the way through. I went to State. I got my master’s degrees at State, and then I had to do that thing which was go away and see the rest of the world," Basinger says.

See the world, she did, and won acclaim for her passion of film history as an expert and educator. The woman who’s devoted her life – and critical eye – to movies calls them two-way mirrors.

"They reflect what they see going on in the world, because that’s how they get people to go and that’s how they make them relevant. And when they reflect what they see out there, in that reflection, people go and then decide that decide this is how they should behave and it becomes role models," Basinger says. "So you always have this two-way thing with movies: they both reflect society and influence society, so that’s what’s going on, and on that basis I guess we can expect more people will be getting married! Who knows? Only time will tell."

Larger trends echo in movies, Basinger says, but the drama filmmakers create isn’t an accurate portrayal of reality. Still, viewers can learn from what they see on the silver screen.

BULTENA: So I shouldn’t hold my husband to the same standard as The Notebook?
BASINGER: You know, you can. I don’t think we can let the husbands off the hook just because they’re not real. I think they should have date night and I think they should take out the garbage and I think, you know, there I’m happy to give my opinion. But, you know, no I think you have to let your husband off the hook but then he has to let you off it, too.

Maybe that’s the answer to Basinger’s own 45-year marriage. Basinger says she’s doesn’t often think too  hard about it; she’s just thankful for her relationship. Basinger leaves the studio with her husband, who goes with her to her interviews. They trek toward her hometown of Brookings, where the couple has purchased a home. Despite decades away from South Dakota, the celebrated film historian and author now knows this is the place for her happily ever after.